April Sides on Lullabot and Georgia.gov

In this week's episode, I'm delighted to welcome April Sides.

April is a Drupal developer who works for Lullabot, one of the biggest and most reputable Drupal agencies. She's worked on all sorts of fascinating projects, and at the moment she's helping Georgia.gov (the state of Georgia), move many of their Drupal sites over to Drupal 8.

We talk about what she's been doing in the Drupal world, about DrupalCon Seattle, which happened the previous week. Plus, we discuss what it's like to be part of such a massive government project, helping people out, and making government websites easier to use.

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Listen to the episode with April


Transcript of April's Episode

  • Steve: Hi, and welcome to the OSTraining Podcast. I'm Steve Burge, and in these podcasts, we talk with fascinating people from around the open source world. In this week's episode, I'm talking with April Sides. April is a Drupal developer, who works for Lullabot, one of the biggest and most reputable Drupal agencies. She's worked on all sorts of fascinating projects, and at the moment she's helping Georgia.gov, the state of Georgia, move many of their Drupal sites over to Drupal 8.
  • Steve: We talk about what she's been doing in the Drupal world, about DrupalCon Seattle, which happened only last week. And, what it's like to be part of such a massive government project, helping people out, by making government websites easier to use and easier to search.
  • Steve: Hey, April, welcome.
  • April: Hi, thanks for having me.
  • Steve: Hey, so, me and you are both on the east coast. You're up in North Carolina, I'm down in Florida, but both of us just got back from Seattle, and DrupalCon 2019.
  • April: Yes, I did.
  • Steve: How did you like it?
  • April: I thought it was great. Met a lot of old friends, made some new friends. It was pretty busy the whole time, but it was great.
  • Steve: So, you went as a representative of Lullabot, the company you're working for now?
  • April: I did. And, we actually had most of the company there this year.
  • Steve: How big is Lullabot? 50, 60 people?
  • April: Yeah, we have just over 50 people.
  • Steve: Okay, and just about everyone from the company that could make it, made it to DrupalCon?
  • April: Right.
  • Steve: So, at least for me, the best thing about it was probably some of the new features that are coming to Drupal. I haven't really got to teach them before, but the new version which is coming in early May has some super cool stuff. I've been teaching at DrupalCon for 10 years now, since 2010, 2011, and I've never got such a good reaction from students, as we did in our training class to the new media features, and the new layout builder that's coming into the core.
  • Steve: The students were really excited. It was a little rejuvenating for me to see people get so excited about new DrupalCon features. What about yourself? What did you really enjoy about DrupalCon this year?
  • April: So, this year is the first I've ever helped out with the training. So I participated in the training that Mike Anello was doing on intra module development and that was really an interesting experience getting to help people learn to develop on Drupal 8. I also attended the or participated in the Drupal community summit on Tuesday and we talked a lot about building the community, and trying to solve the problem of getting junior developers into our ecosystem, bringing in a new generation of developers. So a lot of talking, a lot problem solving.
  • Steve: What if people find tricky obviously you had the module beginners of the class and then later in the week as well? What the stumbling points for Drupal 8 developers on getting started?
  • April: I would say the biggest stumbling point is getting your local development environment set up because there's several different options and people have all different operating systems and so that was one of the hardest part to make sure that everybody had a local development environment set up to get going.
  • Steve: Okay. I swear we didn't plan this in advance, but Mike Anello who is a teacher, he wrote a book on DDEV for us here at OSTraining, DDEV explained is the name of the book. And it's all about setting up local development environments because it can be a pain in the butt. What was particularly tricky when it came to the classes, and the training that you did?
  • April: Well, you definitely use training was not dependent on one local development environment, so it was more agnostic. So we wanted to help each person make sure they had a local development environment that was comfortable for them. So we had some people in Lando, I'm not sure if there was anyone on DDEV. We tried aqueducts desktop, but just some people had systems that they didn't have a lot of control over as well, which made it a little bit harder being on a windows machine and not having those admin privileges necessary to turn on some of the features and get things set up.
  • Steve: Yeah, a lot of the government and university employees are often in that situation.
  • April: Right, but I think he did a really good job of teaching it. He teaches using Drupal Console as a way to create the frameworks of modules to create the scaffolding, to really teach that tool so that people don't have to have full concept, they can spin up a module and then just start editing what they need to edit. So it was a good intro.
  • Steve: So, Drupal 8 is moving a little bit towards the kind of modern job descriptive environment in that you need to get quite a few tools set up before you can start developing. Is that fair to say? You need to have, perhaps composite, perhaps Drupal Console a few bits and pieces ready, rather than just opening up a text editor and hacking away.
  • April: Right. Most of this training was specific to Drupal Console and your ability to generate plug-ins and controllers and various things using that as a tool to make it seem like its just as fast to develop Drupal 8 as it is in Drupal 7 with hooks. It just sort of generates scaffolding and then go through what the scaffolding means and how its all set up.
  • Steve: So you're teaching it, but what's your personal experience? What's your personal feeling on Drupal 8, having worked with it for a few years and having a strong Drupal 7 background too?
  • April: It's definitely a shift, I learned by doing, so I had started a project while I was in working at media current and I had some wonderful teachers to say “Hey, this is how you do it", I'm like "Oh, I understand that now". So, really just diving in and peach be storm really makes it easy to figure out when your looking at a blocked plug-in and it says that it extends a class, you can right click on that and go to the class and start to learn a little bit how everything is connected within the Drupal Core setup now. But, it is definitely a shift and your always learning something new, a new way to do things. Whenever I started at Lullabot, I started on a project and I worked with migration for the first time, so that was pretty cool.
  • Steve: So, if you're talking to someone who is new to Drupal Development and that may be true of quite a few people listening to this Podcast. Would you recommend they start to dig in to Drupal Console and also perhaps get a copy of PhpStorm? I think it had some Drupal specific integrations that might be very useful.
  • April: Right it does. Yeah, I think Drupal console is great but there's also Drush 9 also has the ability to generate scaffolding for various things. So, I think either way, either the solutions you can generate scaffolding for various pieces of things you need to build in Drupal, and it gives you a nice outline of what each thing means and how its all organized now.
  • Steve: So, have you always been very code focused, have you always been a developer? For some reason, when I first met you several years ago I thought you were a designer, that you had a design background. Have you kind of ended up combining the two or are you a designer, a developer, how did you end up working for a big Drupal Development company now?
  • April: Right, so when I went to college I thought I wanted to be a 3D animator and realized that's a really tedious job and it wasn't for me. So, then I learned a little bit about what development and then that was the era of monitors with different numbers of colors and all that sort of stuff, and I was like I don't want to deal with this anymore. So I'm just gonna do print design, but then of course that's not easy either because you deal with lots of different types of paper and materials that way, and different processes for printing. So somehow I made it back to a little print design and web design and then really got back into development. My work for a community college and we moved the college website to Drupal and that was my first experience with Drupal and I was like "I really like this". So I decided to make a shift from, I dropped the print design and went full on back into development, and that's pretty much where I've been ever since. I worked in the federal government and then I moved to the agency world.
  • Steve: And you've done this all over North Carolina?
  • April: Yes.
  • Steve: And so, you've jumped around a few times but from talking to you seem super happy at the most famous or certainly one of the most famous Drupal Agencies, Lullabot. Now, they have a stellar resume of Drupal projects behind them, Tesla and NBC as well. What's it like working for Lullabot?
  • April: Working for Lullabot is amazing. Let's see, prior to working at Lullabot, I've only been here about 8 months. So, prior to Lullabot I was experiencing some major burnout and you did a change of scenery and I feel really fortunate to be here at Lullabot, and I feel like I'm in the right place for me. I'm learning a lot from sales to hiring and just learning a lot and I really like that Lullabot has a set of core values that they share on their website, and one of them, which is probably the most popular is 'be human'. Even though we are Lullabots, the thing we care about the most is being human.
  • Steve: I guess for people who don't know Lullabot too well, the logo is a robot. Which is a little ironic for having a key principle for 'be human'.
  • April: Most definitely.
  • Steve: I remember talking to the guy Matt who runs Lullabot, one of the owners, one of the people who runs Lullabot, and he took maybe 6 months I think at one point to sit down and meticulously write an employee handbook and try and define and control and really take care of the Lullabot culture in defining exactly what it means. For a company that is growing fairly quickly and has people all around the world, that was maybe 3 or 4 years ago now, and you seem to think that its been effective that there's a very strong ethos behind the company.
  • April: Yes, now mosquitoes is awesome, its I don't know. I don't have anything bad to say about Lullabot. Its just as great group of people, and they take care of their employees, and their employees take care of their clients, and I think that's really important at an agency.
  • Steve: There's a certain intangible attitude perhaps that exists but is perhaps hard to put into words. So you actually talked about this at DrupalCon, where you talked about trying to navigate your career into the right place, to really be serious about career development. Not just in terms of finding you a job but avoiding burnouts as well. Did I get that right, you actually stepped up at DrupalCon and talked about this for 50 minutes or so?
  • April: For 30 minutes, luckily not 50. It was a nice enticing title of 'How to Hire and Fire Your Employer', and a lot of it was based on personal experience and then research to see, how do you find the right place for you and how do you plan your career and how do you know what you want and need. It's really requires introspection to figure out who you are and what you need in order to really find a company that you're gonna be a great fit for and that your gonna be a great fit for that company. So it was just really some great advice that I've researched to try and help people not feel stuck in a job and to feel like they can find happiness at work.
  • Steve: So this was something you actually sat back about a year ago or more and researched and tried to figure out for yourself. You felt a little lost perhaps or that there was something better out there, something that would give you more day to day satisfaction?
  • April: Right, so I think I was burned out when I was actually applying at Lullabot. So I'm not really sure how I ended up here but I'm really glad I did. So, a lot of the research everything is, part of me wanted to know why it didn't work at my previous place of employment and just sort of understanding what it takes to find a place that your gonna be happy in. I mean, really I didn't know what my values were and I think that I really do resonate with the values at Lullabots. So I think that's why its a good fit. So I know that there are people out there that are likely in their first job and they don't know what's out there and maybe their afraid to take a leap to try something new, and I try to give some courage and encouragement and empowerment so that people feel like they can take that leap, they can have control over their career if they want to.
  • Steve: How does that move into tangible action, say I'm working for, I was training and I think the boss is a pain in the butt and I'm fed up with working for him. What practical steps could someone like myself take in order to move forward, in order to get out of a rut?
  • April: Right, so definitely starts with introspection; figuring out your personal values, figuring out your soft assets, which are like your knowledge and your skills and your hard assets, what are your cash and investments to know how you can negotiate salary at a new organization, and figuring out what your work environment needs and what your aspirations are. Its really just figuring out who you are and what you need so that you can look around and find something that is going to be compatible. Mostly you do research to see what agencies are out there and you do research on those agencies and its great to talk to people who have worked there, they can give you sort of an insider view of what its like to actually work there, so yeah.
  • Steve: You know, so I was gonna ask a real question. I was gonna ask how old you are, but let me rephrase that slightly and say, how long into your work career did it take you to get to this point? To realize that you needed to sit back and define all those values and figure out something better?
  • April: So I have 13 years of full time employment. So now you can do the math.
  • Steve: So definitely its something that you feel like you should have figured out earlier but you're glad you finally got around to?
  • April: Right. Right. I wanted to help people at whatever point in their career feel more empowered than I did.
  • Steve: Well you know what, I probably have a good few years on you in terms of, heck considerably more than 13 years at this point and I guess one of the things I found is that it happened more than once often, 3 times your values change and this thing has to be done on a fairly regular basis.
  • April: Right. Right. You have to introspect often because your life is gonna change, there are lots of different variables, the place that's for you now may not be for you in, you know, 10 years from now.
  • Steve: So, you moved to Lullabot and one of their selling points is they have such an interesting and high profile roster of clients. Who were you working for on behalf of Lullabot now?
  • April: So my first project at Lullabot has been the Georgia.gov project and that was actually mentioned in the drees note, which was really cool.
  • Steve: Ah, so this I believe was, and this is going back a few years, this was the first state government to entirely move over to Drupal, the federal government did a few years ago and Georgia was the first state to move over to Drupal sites on mass?
  • April: Yeah I'm not sure of their history but that's really interesting.
  • Steve: Yeah I think they've been on Drupal a few years now. I know they have a bunch of Drupal 7 sites for example and I think at one point they did an Amazon Elexon integration so, you can talk into your Amazon device and get answers directly pulled from a Drupal search?
  • April: Right. I think Aqueous was involved in that project. That sounded pretty cool.
  • Steve: So they have hundreds of Drupal sites now for each branch of the state government. So what exactly are you doing for Georgia at the moment? Sounds like a complicated set of projects with lots of agencies, lots of moving pieces.
  • April: Right, so, its a pretty large development team including multiple agencies as you said. My piece of the pie has been focused on migration, so my grading the data from Drupal 7 to Drupal 8. When they redevelop the websites they I guess we had a content strategy team that actually came in prior to doing any development to dictate what's a new sort of relational architecture would look like, and so we implemented that in Drupal 8, so we didn't actually migrate the content structure, and then we took the data from Drupal 7 and broke it into pieces in the new architectures, so we might have, we might create a location node and then have that linked to a piece of content that previously just had a location field. So making lots of different connections, they had paragraphs in field collections in Drupal 7, and we converted that content into embedded nodes and embedded micro content, which were content types as well, and just sort of pushed everything together into the body field. So we've got embedded content in the body field and no more paragraphs. So, it was a really interesting project.
  • Steve: So for someone who might not quite as deep into Drupal as you or me, you're talking about removing some of the more complicated modules that sites may rely on. Paragraphs for example allow people to have structured content that might be an item called a photo gallery, or an item called a video gallery, which could be added and rearranged, but wasn't part of the Drupal core, and when you moved to Drupal 8, am I hearing right that you guys left a lot of those modules behind and moved to the Drupal core using content types for everything, and then embedding them in each other? Linking different content types using the Drupal core more than third party modules?
  • April: Correct. I don't remember what was the deciding factor that was something that was decided early on during the content strategy discovery. So, I'm trying to think, I mean paragraphs does exist in Drupal 8, we just didn't migrate into paragraphs. We instead, stacked the content because they were using paragraphs that had columns of data and things like that and we just sorta compressed into more of a stacked bit of content in a body field. I honestly don't remember what the decision was, why we didn't go the route of paragraphs, but yeah we went the route of creating specific content types that we sort of labeled as micro content. So, we put in place things that would not allow the micro content to be viewed on its own, by anonymous users, so its always kind of treated as something that is only seen as embedded.
  • Steve: Oh okay. So you might have a little snippet of information a few fields perhaps attached to a content type but those little snippets could only be seen in context in a page, they couldn't be seen on their own URL, they couldn't be google indexed by themselves.
  • April: Right and one example of this could be a link collection, micro content type. So, let's say we had a site page that had unlimited link field that held unlimited list of links. Instead of migrating that content over to another link field, that group of links became a link collection and then that link collection was then embedded into the content of the new site page node.
  • Steve: So, big question coming up. You had all the Drupal 7 sites for Georgia.gov moving them over to Drupal 8, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much of a headache is it?
  • April: How much of a headache? I don't know, we've had a really large team so I don't even know a lot of the deployment stuff has been done by one individual. We've got, you know, we redid the architecture instead of migrating it so I think that that probably complicated the migration, on just having to write a lot of custom migrations because the structure was different, the architecture was different. I mean, I think more than a headache, its just been time consuming. Its just time consuming to make sure that everything is working properly, and migrating properly, and finding edge cases here and there. So yeah, its a challenge.
  • Steve: It's easier if you have a big team on hand.
  • April: Definitely.
  • Steve: So just how much in the way of resources does Georgia.gov throw at their web properties at their Drupal work. It sounds like they've got a whole bunch of outsourced work to different agencies. Do they have a core team sitting in Atlanta of Drupal experts on staff or is the vast majority of the work outsourced to people like yourself?
  • April: I think a lot of the migration work has been, or a lot of the new site Drupal 8 migration stuff has been outsourced, and they have an internal team that's been maintaining the Drupal 7 sites during the process. So, we're gonna be migrating a site, let's see, as of this recording, will be last week. We will have migrated our first site, hopefully, and then we just sort of grouped them so that this group is gonna migrate and then we've got another group, because they're also working with agencies to fix any data discrepancies and things like that that might be issues in the migration. So they are doing a lot of that management, a lot of the QA, and they have a developer on staff who has been working with our team to come up to speed on how to do the deployments for the Drupal 8 site and how to make sure everything is, you know, the Drupal 7 sites are still functioning properly at the same time as the Drupal 8 sites. But we also had some other agencies involved, we had Palantir worked on federated search.
  • April: So that piece of the pie was something that Palantir handled, and the federated search means if you don't know means that all the Drupal sites are indexed within the same database so that when you're searching you can search. You can see resources from other Georgia.gov websites, you know, when you're on a particular one if you'd like to.
  • Steve: So, they have a network of 600 plus different separate Drupal installs, but if you go to the homepage of Georgia.gov and you search for fishing license or drivers licenses or rental agreements or whatever else the government might be providing. That single search box goes through all of those hundreds of Drupal sites?
  • April: Right. Each site is indexed and I believe its using Solar as the back end. So yeah, if you're on Georgia.gov and you do a search its gonna take you, its gonna make sure you find the link to the agency where you should, like you said, get a license or something like that.
  • Steve: Okay. So you have one single Apache Solar setup that might be indexing 300 Drupal 7 sites, 300 Drupal 8 sites, maybe a multi site setup as well. All the different bits and pieces that Georgia.gov runs is going into one search index.
  • April: Correct.
  • Steve: Okay. It sounds like a challenge.
  • April: Yeah. I think Palantir was the agency that's developed federated search modules so I think that they went to them for their expertise, and I really think its paid off.
  • Steve: Cool. So, there's Equid, there's Lullabot, there's Palantir, there's I think a Media Currents and we're probably missing out some other Drupal agencies as well.
  • April: Yeah, Media Current helped out on the front end to make sure we got all of the front end work done prior to launch, make sure we hit our launch dates. Yeah, its been a great collaborative effort.
  • Steve: Cool. So, you're working for a core company now and working on some cool projects. Do you have any other major stuff you're working on? You do a big DrupalCamp as well despite all this extra work. You have your DrupalCamp Asheville in North Carolina coming up this year.
  • April: We do. DrupalCamp Asheville 2019. It's gonna be July 12th through 14th. We have a really great time. We're gonna have a contribution day on Friday along with some trainings, we do sessions on Saturdays and we encourage people to come and stay on Sunday to do some hiking and just, you know, get to know people in the community.
  • Steve: So, Asheville is in North Carolina and its way up in the mountains of North Carolina but its probably, how do I say this, as a British person who lived in the south 20 years or so, it has a reputation, but in recent years that reputation has been changing. It used to be a fairly slow backwoods city but increasingly Asheville is a cool place to come and visit. Lots of craft breweries, got that kind of hipster vibe with a few bids and tattoo parlors and like a little maybe Austen, like something you wouldn't expect in North Carolina.
  • April: Definitely. We are definitely a quirky little city. Our city/town we're pretty small compared to where we were just in Seattle, but yeah, a lot of good music, a lot of good food. Really laid back in the mountains, its beautiful in the summer and some people worried its to hot, its not to hot, its great. Yeah, we try to take people around the city and show everyone a really great time in the city.
  • Steve: So, you work entirely with Motley Lullabot 100% distributed company and you, I guess in previous years you chose to move to Asheville but that's where you decided to make your home.
  • April: Yeah, I actually went to UNC Asheville for college and when I graduated I stuck around. I was able to get a job right out of college, which is kinda hard, so I decided to stick around here and the towns really evolved since I graduated, and we won't go back to that calculating the years of how long since I went to school. But yeah, its a great town. If anyone is listening to this you gotta come. You gotta come to Asheville this year.
  • Steve: Well, they've had some sizable tech companies open branches there, right? It's been a change in culture and increasingly tech heavy culture there?
  • April: They are trying to build the tech industry here. We don't have a huge local Drupal community. Really our camp it the big thing, but there are some webshots here and there are efforts to try and bring more industry here. It's hard to bring in manufacturing to a city in the mountains, because there's not enough flat space to have factories and things like that. So, we're trying to branch out because right now our industry is tourism. So, that's not a very sustainable industry. So yeah, there's definitely a drive to start tech companies here, and you know I would say its a bring your own job kind of city. If you work here remotely Asheville is a great place to live its on like the top 10 places to live, places to visit in the world, so, its a great place.
  • Steve: Cool. So let's do a quick promotional rundown. DrupalCamp Asheville is what dates this year?
  • April: July 12th through 14th.
  • Steve: And you mentioned you had a big Georgia.gov launch coming up? Do you want to give out the URLs so people can check it out?
  • April: There's actually 2 sites. We are supposed to be launching the ADA.Georgia.gov and I believe the SBWC.Georgia.gov.
  • Steve: Okay. You have to give us a hint to what those are.
  • April: The ADA is, yeah, I'm gonna have to look that up. As you're developing all you care about is the subdomain. So let's see, the state of Georgia ADA coordinators office is the ADA site. So they help with accessibility resources and SBWC is the state board of workers compensation.
  • Steve: Okay. So everything that the Georgia government can do is end up on Drupal if it hasn't done already and on Drupal 8. Obviously the company you enjoy working for is Lullabot. Okay and finally April, where can people keep up with you and what you're doing?
  • April: You can follow me on Twitter. My handle is Week Before Next of course, which means now, you know not week after next, week before next.
  • Steve: There's got to be a story behind that. So April, thank you so much for joining us. I wish you well with your future work at Lullabot and with the Georgia.gov launches you have coming up.
  • April: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

About the author

Steve is the founder of OSTraining. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Sarasota in the USA. Steve's work straddles the line between teaching and web development.